During the invasion of Ukraine, a Russian bomb exploded near Babyn Yar, just outside of Kyiv, perilously close to the monument that commemorates the 1941 massacre of 33,771 Ukrainian Jews. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, tweeted after the strike, “To the world: what is the point of saying ‘never again’ for 80 years, if the world stays silent when a bomb drops on the same site of Babyn Yar? At least 5 killed. History repeating…”
Babyn Yar, or Babi Yar as it is known in English, was the largest single mass execution by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Holocaust. But for decades after World War II, the memory of the atrocity and the largest mass grave of the war was intentionally erased by the Soviet Union. The monument, the one threatened by the Russian attack, was erected only a little more than 30 years ago, in defiance of a decades-long attempt to bury the truth of what had happened. Much of the grim history of the place has been retold in a new documentary, Babi Yar, by one of Ukraine’s leading filmmakers, Sergei Loznitsa. But as Loznitsa makes clear, the powerful significance of the belatedly constructed monument—especially at this moment in history, when it stands threatened in the midst of another war—can only be fully understood by going back and looking at the little-known story of how it came to be built in the first place. The monument that marks the spot exists today because of a poem written by a Soviet-era Russian poet.
In September of 1961, a six-foot-tall young man of 28, dressed in a dark suit and tie, stood on the stage of the Polytechnic Museum in Moscow. It was a packed auditorium, and chairs had been placed on the stage to accommodate the overflow crowd. The young man read from a sheet of paper he nervously held in his hand—a poem that would shake, rattle, and roil the Soviet empire and make him one of the most celebrated poets of his time.
His name was Yevgeny Aleksandrovich Yevtushenko. The poem he read, “Babi Yar,” would come to solemnize the murder of tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews by the Nazi invaders. It was a massacre that had already gone for 20 years without a reckoning.
Yevtushenko approached the microphones and, in a voice that purred and growled and lamented, began the poem:
No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid …
The audience was rapt. The English poet W. H. Auden once wrote that “poetry makes nothing happen,” but when Yevtushenko read “Babi Yar” and then published it in the weekly newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta, something extraordinary did indeed happen.
Yevtushenko was met by a long silence when he finished the poem. Then the audience rose to its feet and applauded for 10 minutes. Afterward, a gray-haired woman leaning on a cane slowly came up to the poet and said, “I was in Babi Yar.” She was one of the few survivors who had managed to crawl out from under the men, women, and children murdered there.
The massacre had lasted two days. Though tens of thousands of Ukraine’s Jews were murdered over two days, the Nazi war machine also used the site to gun down ethnic Ukrainians, Russians, and marginalized groups—gay men, Romani, and Ukrainian partisans. That cold-bloodedness can be heard in the testimony of a German soldier, Obergefreiter Hans Isenmann, at a Soviet postwar trial investigating the atrocities committed in the Ukrainian S.S.R. by German Fascists. When asked how the mass shooting was carried out, Isenmann coolly answered:
We had to round up the Jewish population and shoot them…. I had to search the houses for Jews in Lvov.... The shootings were conducted by the sides of the pits…. We were positioned approximately 70 to 90 meters away from the pits. Our men were divided as follows: six men to guard and six men to shoot. I was tasked with shooting. The shootings were conducted as follows: people were brought to the pits in groups of 45 – 50. They were positioned at the edge, they had to face us, and in this way they were shot. We were armed with the following weapons: one machine gun, two submachine guns, and the rest—rifles.
“After WWII, the theme of Babi Yar completely disappeared from the pages of the Soviet Press,” Yevtushenko later wrote in his memoir, A Precocious Autobiography. “Cold War, Iron Curtain, mutual mistrust … the old epidemic, anti-Semitism.”
It was the writer Anatoly Kuznetsov who first brought Yevtushenko to the sandy ravine, 20 years after the massacre. (Kuznetsov, an eyewitness to the horror, would publish the heavily censored Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel in 1966.) Yevtushenko was shocked to find no commemoration of what had happened there; in fact, the site had become a dump where trucks unloaded their garbage. The Soviets had plans to turn it into a sports stadium. Yevtushenko—who was not Jewish—felt a deep sense of shame. He told his then wife, the poet Bella Akhmadulina, “We have to write about such things. We cannot allow future generations to forget.” He returned to his hotel room, sat down, and began to write “Babi Yar,” completing it in a handful of hours. There had been earlier outcries to do something to commemorate the horrors of Babi Yar, but it was Yevtushenko’s bold, impassioned poem that would seize the Russian imagination, especially electrifying Soviet youth.
“Babi Yar” denounced anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union and beyond, while declaring the poet’s identification with the victims:
Today, I am as old
as the entire Jewish race itself.
I see myself an ancient Israelite.
I wander over the roads of ancient Egypt
And here, upon the cross, I perish …
In a phone interview from her home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Maria Novikova, Yevtushenko’s fourth wife and widow, described the deep-seated conspiracy of shame and silence about the massacre. “‘Babi Yar’ broke that silence,” she told Air Mail. “I believe there are excerpts from the poem printed at the Holocaust Museum in D.C., and in Yad Vashem, in Israel.” The conspiracy of silence was meant to hide the existence of Nazi collaborators in occupied Eastern Europe. In an attempt to whitewash history, official Soviet propaganda claimed there were few such collaborators, and that the mass murder was carried out, unaided, by German Nazis.
After the overwhelming response to his reading at the Moscow Polytechnic Museum, Yevtushenko went to Literaturnaya Gazeta, a popular cultural newspaper, and read the poem to a friend, who was impressed and immediately asked for copies. With Stalin’s repressive air still hanging over the Soviet Union, the editors didn’t even consider publishing so incendiary a poem, but Yevtushenko persuaded them.
After a long wait, an elderly compositor came in.
“You Yevtushenko?” he asked. He shook the poet’s hand. “I’ve just set your poem. It hit the nail right on the head.”
The next morning, every copy of the Gazeta was sold out, at every newsstand. That same day, Yevtushenko began receiving telegrams from strangers congratulating him. Eventually, 20,000 letters reached him about the poem, of which only 30 or 40 were abusive—and unsigned. Within a short time of being written, “Babi Yar” was published around the world, translated into 72 languages.
He gave a second reading after the poem was published, this time in Moscow’s Mayakovsky Square. Ten thousand people showed up.
A Composer Calls
Soon after the poem’s publication, Yevtushenko got an unexpected phone call. It was Dmitri Shostakovich, asking if he could set “Babi Yar” at the heart of his Thirteenth Symphony, which he was in the process of composing.
“It’s a story Yevtushenko liked to tell,” Maria recalled. “He got a phone call. Someone said, ‘Hello, my name is Shostakovich,’” and he thought it was a joke, so he hung up. And then there was a second call. “Excuse me, I am Shostakovich, the composer. I really want to speak to Yevgeny Aleksandrovich.… I would like your permission to use your poem “Babi Yar” in my work.’ He addressed Yevtushenko very formally. Shostakovich was much older, and already had great fame.”
When it dawned on Yevtushenko that he really was talking to the celebrated composer, he immediately agreed. Shostakovich asked, “If you have some free time right now, would you come to my house?” He hurried over, and Shostakovich played the “Babi Yar” part of the symphony.
After playing the chorale with the words of “Babi Yar,” the composer led the poet to a table and quickly knocked back two glasses of vodka.
“Well, what do you think?”
Not only was Yevtushenko thrilled, he later wrote that “Shostakovich changed me as a poet.”
Yevtushenko’s son Zhenya joined his mother in the conversation, noting that “Shostakovich was risking his career. They came under fire quite a bit.” Yevtushenko had to add two stanzas referencing non-Jewish Ukrainians who were murdered at Babi Yar, to make it more acceptable to the Soviet regime.
Maria added, “A lot of people said Yevtushenko was a compromiser, but he didn’t have a choice actually, because without it, the symphony would never have been performed.” Zhenya noted that the added lines “remained in the lyrics to the symphony but in subsequent publications the lines were removed, and anytime he would perform ‘Babi Yar’ he would return to the original version.”
The Thirteenth Symphony premiered on December 18, 1962, at the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. “It was greeted by thunderous applause—the audience wept, laughed … and fell into thought.… Afterwards, the symphony was to be nearly forbidden,” wrote Yevtushenko. But it had shamed the Soviet bureaucracy into finally memorializing one of the greatest atrocities and largest mass graves of the Second World War. Yevtushenko described the symphony as “the first sound monument over Babi Yar.”
The first physical monument at the site, however, was just a small obelisk placed there in 1966. Ten years later, a larger monument was erected. It was 50 feet tall but omitted any mention of the victims’ having been overwhelmingly Ukrainian Jews. The Soviet bureaucracy instead paid tribute to Soviet soldiers and prisoners of war who were massacred along with Jewish victims. It would take another 15 years before the names of Jewish victims were recorded on a menorah-shaped monument, erected in 1991—and only after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the sovereign independence of Ukraine.
As for Yevtushenko, his daring to break the conspiracy of silence around Babi Yar brought him unwanted attention from the Soviet authorities. He had already been thrown out of the Maxim Gorky Literary Institute, but he seemed to be protected by his growing fame as a poet, as his poetry continued to be translated and published around the world. He was somewhat protected, too, because he was writing during an era that came to be known as Khrushchev’s “Thaw” (named for Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier from 1958 to 1964). Intended as a rebuke to Stalinism, the Thaw had enabled a brief flowering of the arts, and one of the flowers that had broken through the frozen ground was “Babi Yar.”
But even during the Thaw there were limits. Khrushchev denounced the poem in Pravda, objecting to Yevtushenko’s theme of Jewish martyrdom. Perhaps that’s one reason why an anthology of 20th-century Russian poets titled Silver and Steel that Yevtushenko worked on for many years had to be smuggled out of the Soviet Union in order to be published.
“The fate of almost every Russian poet has been tragic,” Yevtushenko wrote in his introduction to the anthology. “Why should the main heroes of this anthology be made to suffer again?”
Mayakovsky, who shot himself in 1930 …Tsvetaeva, who hanged herself in 1942; Pasternak, expelled from the Writers Union … Pushkin and Lermontov were both killed in duels; Blok, burning himself out, virtually committed suicide; Yesenin hanged himself …
It would fall to the actor Warren Beatty, surprisingly, who was in Russia researching his 1981 film, Reds, to smuggle part of the manuscript out of the Soviet Union. Zhenya described how it was delivered to the U.S. by Beatty “in a small, Brazilian hand case decorated with the head of a young crocodile,” a gift from Yevtushenko to the actor. Other parts of the manuscript were smuggled out by Marina Vlady, a well-known French actress from a Russian-émigré family. Once it arrived safely, Silver and Steel was published by the legendary New York editor Nan Talese at Doubleday.
Yevtushenko’s international fame grew, and the poet met with American celebrities as a kind of “cultural diplomat,” wrote the journalist Jacob Silverman in the New Republic, all the while “toggling between different modes of criticism of the USSR, hoping to stay one step ahead of the censors and of the politburo’s wrath.” But, as Silverman documented, the F.B.I. was also suspicious of Yevtushenko.
The F.B.I. compiled a 400-page dossier on Yevtushenko, and after the poet’s death, Silverman was able to see a redacted version through a Freedom of Information Act request.
He discovered that in the fall of 1961, F.B.I. agents were trying to figure out how America could use “Babi Yar” as propaganda against the Soviets. They even had an agent toiling away at new translations of the poem.
F. J. Baumgardner (the agent who later labeled Martin Luther King Jr. a “degenerate communist”) wrote in a memo to F.B.I. leadership:
It is believed that this poem “Babi Yar” can be utilized by the Bureau as an excellent psychological weapon to further highlight anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union and to point out the lack of freedom of speech inside the Soviet Union.
The F.B.I. hoped that “Eugenii Evtushenko”—as his name was often misspelled in the files—could be turned into an American asset. When the poet toured America in 1966, the F.B.I. tracked his movements, tapping phones at colleges where he was scheduled to appear. They were still at it when Yevtushenko returned in 1972 for perhaps his grandest American reading, “Yevtushenko and Friends: Poetry in Concert,” in which the poet recited in Russian from his most recent book, Stolen Apples, and the poems were then read in English by a slew of notable American poets, including James Dickey, Stanley Kunitz, and Richard Wilbur. Even a former presidential candidate and amateur poet, Senator Eugene McCarthy, took part. The 5,000-seat sold-out event was held over two nights at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum.
Then on to South Carolina, where Yevtushenko appeared before an audience of 4,000, and to the University of North Carolina, where he performed, recited, and read before 3,500 adoring fans. Yevtushenko ended his tour with an appearance at Carnegie Hall. All the while, the F.B.I. followed him, taking notes and writing down names.
Despite the risks he took as a young poet, by the 1980s Yevtushenko was being dismissed by other Russian poets and writers as being not dissident enough, too cozy with the Politburo. The émigré poet and Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky—who had undergone imprisonment, torture, and exile at the hands of the Soviets—complained that Yevtushenko had been neither exiled nor imprisoned, and that he had made compromises in order to travel freely outside of the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, Brodsky himself had memorized hundreds of lines of Yevtushenko’s poetry. The New York Times later observed, “By stopping short of the line between defiance and resistance, he enjoyed a measure of official approval that more daring dissidents came to resent.”
Yevtushenko was still a colorful figure in the early 1990s, flamboyantly dressed and dramatic in his readings, but his crowds had dwindled and the venues were smaller; he performed mostly for students and fellow émigrés. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, even the F.B.I. lost interest.
In 1993, Yevtushenko came to teach at the University of Tulsa, invited by a renowned expert in Russian history and Soviet politics, Dr. Robert Donaldson. When asked if the move to Tulsa was something of a cultural shock for his citizen-of-the-world father, Zhenya answered, “He thought Tulsa was more reflective of America than New York. He basically liked to joke that ‘New York was all of humanity in a single teardrop, and Tulsa was more like the belly button of America.’”
Zhenya saw how “the University of Tulsa gave him a lot of freedom.” He taught just one day a week, and then often went out with his graduate students after classes. “He liked having an audience.” In fact, a social-media group became devoted to him: They would track his outlandish ensembles—all sorts of crazy mixing and matching. He was known for his hats. He was able to pull it off. He had a fashion following!” At public readings, he still recited “Babi Yar” along with his newer poems. In 2017, at age 83, Yevtushenko died of heart failure in Tulsa.
In 1991, on the 50th anniversary of the massacre, when the monument was finally built, Yevtushenko was at last invited to recite his poem at Babi Yar itself, in an independent Ukraine, followed by the long-awaited premier in Kyiv of the Thirteenth Symphony. Shostakovich would never hear his “sound monument” performed at Babi Yar, having passed away in 1975. A half-century late, the crime was fully acknowledged.
But the Russian bombs that fell on Babi Yar last month remind us that the evils of the 20th century are still with us in the 21st. And one thing is certain: when the current terrible calamity is finally over, there will be new monuments for the brave and the dead, new monuments consecrated over mass graves in Ukraine, just like the one raised over Babyn Yar.
Sam Kashner is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL. He is the co-author of several books, including A Talent for Genius: The Life and Times of Oscar Levant and Life Isn’t Everything: Mike Nichols, as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends
Nancy Schoenberger is the author of The Whitechapel Arias, a verse play